Runaway youth cases decline About 540 predicted for year, down 37%

task force credited

November 18, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

For the first time in four years, the number of runaway youths in Howard County has gone down.

Police predict there will be about 540 reports of runaway youths this year, 37 percent fewer than last year's total of 859. Until this year, the number of reports increased steadily, rising 72 percent from 1993 to 1996.

Credit for the decrease goes to an award-winning task force formed by Howard police Detective Brian Markley, the only detective assigned full time to track youths who run away from home. The task force includes Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center -- a nonprofit, 24-hour counseling center in Columbia -- the state's attorney's office, the Board of Education, the Department of Social Services and the Health Department.

"With the task force, we wanted to take the best, most proactive approach we could to stem the tide of kids running away from home," said Markley, who was given a Governor's Crime Prevention Award this month for the program. "We really wanted to look and see if there was anything we could do to control the numbers of kids out there who were leaving."

By studying each of the 859 reports of runaways from last year, Markley said, he found that 417 youths had run away, many of them more than once. Getting to repeat offenders, he said, became paramount.

Andrea Ingram, Grassroots' executive director, said Markley approached the center to help stop the trend. "The police were looking to put together a program that would get to teens and their parents after the first time [the teen-agers] ran away, before nTC they have a chance to become repeat offenders," she said.

The task force was created in August 1996, when police realized that their caseload was becoming too much to handle alone.

"There were so many cases, and the department was burdened with first-time offenders, repeat offenders and families who couldn't cope," Markley said. Before the task force was established, police handled the problem -- from investigation to counseling.

Now, Markley works with parents to find where their child went, and he works to understand why the child left home.

Though there have been a few notable cases of runaways missing for weeks, months, even years at a time, the majority in Howard County rarely leave the state, and most are returned home within 24 hours, police said.

"Most kids wind up spending the night at a friend's house and then show up the next day," Markley said. "Often, they run away because they resent the authority their parents have, and they just don't want to have to do what [the parents] say."

Markley gets in touch with the parents of a missing teen-ager and refers them to the Grassroots counselors, who are trained to offer advice on how to cope until a child returns.

Through counseling, parents are taught skills for dealing with their children when they return home.

"There's obviously a breakdown in communication within the family if you have children running away from home," said Debra Popiel, crisis intervention coordinator at Grassroots. "We have to get at why each kid left home and try to work on some solutions for keeping them from leaving again."

Ingram said many Howard parents whose children are not runaways may wonder why a child living in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation would want to run away.

"I think there are a lot of kids who are feeling misunderstood, that there's too much pressure put on them to succeed, that problems don't just go away if you have a lot of material resources," Ingram said.

Markley said runaway youths in Howard are generally in their teens. They may have problems such as depression, suicidal tendencies, criminal records and truancy. Many of the chronic cases are returned home over and over against their will, he said.

State law regards running away as a status offense, meaning violators cannot be arrested or charged with a crime. After they are found, runaways are returned to their homes and families unless it is determined they have been abused.

Law enforcement officials are eager to see the status offense law changed. Police said crimes such as theft, drug dealing and robbery are more likely to be averted if running away is made a crime. Repeat offenders often commit crimes while away from home.

For now, task force members hope to get to runaways after their first venture away from home, Markley said.

"If these kids keep running away and there's no teeth in the law, they'll be running into more problems than they can ever handle," he added.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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